Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review: "Machine Gun Preacher"

"Machine Gun Preacher" is one of those stories that if it wasn't based on reality, few people would buy it.

Gerard Butler plays Sam Childers, a biker hoodlum who goes straight after discovering Jesus, and builds a church across the street from his house for sinners like himself. This would be enough for most movies, but for "Preacher" it's a mere jumping-off point: Sam goes to Uganda, is repulsed by the bloody civil war spilling over there from Sudan, and dedicates his life to establishing and protecting an orphanage.

But Sam is no pacifist "lamb of God" type of preacher -- he believes the Lord wants not sheep, but wolves with teeth who can fight the evildoers. The film's title is not just hyperbole: Sam gets into frequent firefights, and mows down more bad guys than the first couple of Rambo flicks.

Director Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland") and screenwriter (and Indianapolis native) Jason Keller curiously do not focus too much on the right or wrong of this American bringing the fight to the rebels, who kill wantonly and kidnap children to fight for them as enslaved soldiers. It's more an interior exploration of Sam, and the toll a life of such fierce commitment to a cause takes on his family and psyche.

The bad guys are referred to as simply the LRA, but after a bit of Googling I discover that stands for Lord's Resistance Army. It turns out the Sudanese rebels, led by self-described mystic Joseph Kony, are Christians who follow an apocalyptic form of the religion based on a particularly harsh (mis)interpretation of the Ten Commandments.

This would make for an interesting dichotomy, the two holy men each fighting for their version of the Bible. Forster and Keller briefly flirt with this direction, personified by a female doctor who points out that Kony started out much as Sam did, professing to save the members of his flock from the depravity of the other side.

But as soon as "Machine Gun Preacher" looks like it's going to tackle some tough issues, and really put its protagonist under a microscope, it pulls back and settles for familiar tropes, such as Sam's wife (Michelle Monaghan) calling to complain that he never spends time with his family, they're running out of money, etc.
Not 30 minutes earlier, she was telling Sam to suck it up after the rebels burned down the orphanage, calling it a test from God and to just build it all over again.

Michael Shannon adds a few notes as Donnie, Sam's former running buddy who can't shake off the lure of drugs and crime as easily as Sam did. But his character flits in and out of the story in a seemingly arbitrary way.

Butler is a fiery presence as Sam, and some of the scenes where he witnesses the atrocities of war -- one woman is brought in to the clinic with her lips hacked off, for having talked back to rebel soldiers -- have a genuine visceral punch.

But for much of the time, "Machine Gun Preacher" is curiously flat and wandering. It seems to think that by simply presenting the reality of a colorful man, you don't need to do anything else.

2 stars out of four

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